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Commencement speeches, by tradition, call us together and reaffirm the ideas that will guide us forward. But how might that work now?

Let Us Commence

May 1, 2019
What are the common ideas and principles that shape us and guide us, and inspire our efforts to advance and prosper?

This is the season for commencement speeches and valedictory addresses – or at least that would be the case in the parallel universe that I frequently inhabit. By frequently, I mean whenever I am not speaking with family or friends or colleagues. When I am alone and in charge of all the ideas under consideration, the basic assumptions and principles are quite different than what is ongoing in the real world.

I realize as I ponder this that I don’t truly know how important commencement address still are now. It seems possible that audiences do not care to hear from anyone they do not already know and endorse. If I had to give a commencement speech this month, it would take me a long time to set down ideas that would be clear and appreciable to my listeners

Commencement speeches, by tradition, are given by admirable or noteworthy individuals. Their role is to call together everyone assembled — graduates, their families and friends, the faculty and others who have shared their academic enterprise — and establish some basis for marking the occasion and establishing a spirit from which to send everyone forth in life. These messages build on common values and ideas, but by tradition they also give encouragement to individual aspirations.

Connecting individuals to their communities, and more generally to the society and civilization in which we live, is the great problem of our time. My own retreat into a universe of the mind is symptomatic of this, but there is ample evidence of the more serious consequences for all of us because we no longer have any agreement on the core principles of our civilization.

The substance and tone of politics is the most obvious example of this, but it is generally possible to ignore that. It’s also possible to ignore other aspects of the chaos that has displaced civilization: don’t watch most of the movies or TV shows, or listen to the music produced to entertain these uncivilized crowds. Don’t travel among ordinary people more than is necessary. Carefully choose where you go to shop or dine, and socialize only with those people you understand and trust.

This is all fairly ridiculous, of course, but it’s not unrealistic. It’s a distillation of the consumerist environment in which we live, a civilization which has as its primary value the autonomy and primacy of the individual. From this stems various objective principles, such as the notion that what one does or believes is affirmatively good so long as it does no harm to another; or that one is entitled to define what is true, so long as that is affirmed by deeply held feelings. The saliency of ideas or principles in this environment is generally based on the rewards that accrue to those who promote them, or hold them. So, winning, prospering means you’re right. Right?

Why have our civilizational principles collapsed? It’s impossible to lay blame in one place, but I always start from the fact that we have lost faith in the various institutions that historically were emblems of our beliefs and principles. Government, academia, and commercial enterprises are all transactional entities to us: they stand for their own interests, not to uphold any common good.

More important than how this chaos came to be is why we endure it. Most people probably are not as sensitive to the chaos as I am – and I envy them for that. It’s apparent that technological resources work best when promoting individual autonomy; social platforms are more likely to propagate division and misunderstanding than to affirm eternal truths.

Chinese authorities have been guarding against these outcomes in their society for over two decades, building and maintaining the Golden Shield Project to oversee and direct the collection and exchange of information, for all purposes including commerce and security. The role for individuals in this is very much subordinated. Lately, Russian authorities are taking on a similar objective, to secure and control all exchange of information in that country.

I don’t see any possibility for success in these efforts, nor any change in the sense of chaos that surrounds us. Our hope is in those alternative ideas and principles we maintain within us, and in how well embody them for others to see, and recognize, and embrace.